Being a part of the village is a lot more work than I expected. I feel thankful that Tomoe and I are lucky enough to call that time "work" because a part of our work is to get to know this village as much as possible.
One of the responsibilities I signed on for is the shobodan (volunteer fire brigade). I had been interested in joining, and inquired about coming on as a "medic", as I really loved the Wilderness First Training courses I have taken and thought it might be an area I could be helpful. I heard nothing about it, however, until the owner of one of the inns we frequent (a former rappa-cho (trumpet brigade captain) asked me to join his group which was short of people. I gladly agreed, despite the fact that I have no trumpet skills, and I really didn't know what role a trumpeter plays in fighting fires or saving lives.
As it turns out, the trumpeter is supposed to make certain calls to alert the other fire fighters what to do - such as turn on the water, turn off the water, run into the fire, run away from the fire. In real life, though, this is not used and I am certain that only a handful of the fire-fighting fire-fighters know the calls anyway. When I asked, I was told that if there is a real fire, I should leave the trumpet at home and bring a bucket.
While I am on-call for a specific area of our village - a call that will come over the village wide intercom system - the real role of a rappa now seems to be to help keep the community a community. In this sense, it appears rather successful (at least to a city-boy like me). In Tokyo, community service is outsourced to local agencies, officials, and non-profit organizations. Here, many of my neighbors are members of the fire brigade, and although it is not mandatory, it is a sort of "right of passage" for young people who choose to stay in the village. It helps people connect with other hamlets in the village while also providing a valuable service that the village can't afford to outsource.
There are also yearly competitions where neighboring village's fire brigades compete in such events as "pump", and "blowing the trumpet". In the "pump" event, the fastest pump team (there are several in the village) compete for time and accuracy to see how long it takes them to unroll a hose, hook it up to a gas-powered water pump, and hit a target that represents the fire. Speed and accuracy of aim are not the only issues, however. They are also watched by four or more judges who make sure that every pleat in their pants is in order, and that ever movement is exactly "correct" - right down to the angle of their elbow as they flip the switch on the pump.
For the rappa, only a part of our score depends on how well we play. Much of it depends on if we can march in time or salute at the right time. How our hand is shaped in the salute, and how sharply we can turn. Basically, how well we can conform and act like a mindless group. I say mindless, because no one has been able to tell me why we do this.
This is where it starts getting into the dark and scary side. This is where I think the real reason for the shobodan lies. It seems to me that this is no more than a thinly veiled attempt to create a group of people who can "follow orders". While in this case we carry a trumpet, it is not inconceivable that some day the volunteer fire brigade will be ordered to carry a gun and stand at attention for reasons they are not fully aware of. Sure, there would probably be a lot of people that would resist, but having undergone such training, I would guess some resistance would be broken down. I for one never thought I would ever stand at attention to the Japanese flag (still a controversial image to many) and play the national anthem as I did a few weeks ago. (Oops! did I just admit that I did that? There goes my chances of ever being president of the US.) Now, I don't even think that that is a big deal, and if I think about it I don't think it is a big deal - probably even better than being forced to pledge allegiance to the flag when I was a kid who didn't understand what it means, but there is just something in me that can't stand about blind "allegiance". Then again, I was never able to understand the frat gig or why my high-school football team had some sort of "special" bond, and I never felt it. Maybe that is why I liked track better - I only had to compete against myself and my own times.
Before the regional competition, the trumpet brigade practiced two hours every week-night for a month. It gives me chills to think about the amount of time and emphasis spent on marching in time, compared to the amount of time and emphasis spent on actually putting out a fire. One would think that the most important thing in an emergency situation is to diffuse it - rather than spend time worrying if your hat is as straight as some handbook or "superior" said it should be.
Still, I will stay a member of the rappa brigade while work allows. It does give me something to do with the other young people of the village, whom I rarely meet, and the rappa brigade is a source of pride for some villagers and gives me a sense of participation. It is amazing to me that I have stuck with it this long.
These photos are from a practice session at the neighboring village in Tsunan, Niigata. They do not have a trumpet brigade as well, so we were asked to come and provide the trumpet entertainment. It meant two weeks of nightly practice, as well as an entire day standing at attention and listening to a long line of important people give long, almost identical speeches one after another, each time blowing a trumpet salute to give them proof that they are important. I have no doubt that some of them are great men (and one woman), but to blow their praises blindly, without knowing why, just because my superior officer told me to...